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It’s time for the truth about gardens

Richard Hollingum muses upon the real meaning of gardens to the English. Warning: contains adult language…

There are few things more quintessentially English than an open English village garden, offering a feast of flowers, fruit cake and tea. The season properly starts towards the end of Spring with blowsy tulips and rolls through until the end of summer with borders of asters and dahlias. And whilst it is the flower and the vegetable beds that draw the people, it is the whole event and what it stands for that I find particularly interesting – well that and the opportunity to nose round other people’s gardens.

There are, of course, the elite gardens, those that are part of the National Garden Scheme. They have to come up to not only the NGS standard but more frighteningly the standard of the head gardener, and let’s face it, any garden, large or small, has a head gardener (I only operate on a where-and-when-I-am-told basis).

As beautiful as they may be, it is not these gardens that interest me. No, it is those villages that open a small number of ordinary and not-so-ordinary gardens once a year that show a side to village life not always apparent, though often suspected. It is the way to get to understand the village, its cohesion and its community spirit. Often these villages are opening their gardens as a collective fund raising event – for the church, the village hall or some local or national charity. And just like amateur dramatic societies the country over, it involves always the same people.

The organisation is headed by one person, ironically usually someone who does not, therefore, have the time to open their garden, or may even dislike gardening. This situation offers a new view on the feudal system that is still alive and well and not so far under the surface in these ‘proper English villages’, as my Father used to refer to them. Most villages have the old family and their near contemporaries, and the occasional important, and usually affluent, more recent incomer, someone who arrived in the demesne in the past 75 years. It is from this upper echelon that such an organiser is invariably drawn. They know the people that need to be known, and they know how to persuade lesser mortals to open their gardens – and their lives – to a flock of visitors.

Under this leader, an array of villagers are called upon to provide cream teas, bake cakes, run tombola stalls, arrange the parking, produce the guide and sort out the cutting of the grass on the verges and the village green. This army will also include some who are opening their garden and how hard is their lot.

The weeks leading up to the event are fraught with anxious activity. Compost is bought by the tonne. Garden centres and nurseries are trawled for something a bit different, something that will add a focal point, something not to be found anywhere else in the village. The theme for the work of horticultural art is reconsidered. You are now forced to oust the moribund roses but it is too late to wipe the canvas clean and start again. You learn that you have to go with nature and perhaps add something, but you cannot stop it. On the day before the opening, it is back to the garden centre to buy even more plants, pot them up and then place them in the border, in the gaps amongst the more permanent residents. Such plunging may not be de rigeur but it does provide a useful I-Spy game for bored children (and spouses) as they wander round the eleventh garden of the afternoon.

Come the day of the opening and the terrace is swept three times, then the vacuum cleaner brought out to finish the job. The pump in the pond is taken out, cleaned (again) and put back. The windows are cleaned too, because it is not just your garden on show, and the curtains are drawn as you cannot trust even genteel garden voyeurs apparently. And everything gets a watering. Some may think that this is to provide last-minute liquid sustenance but it is not. It is to wash the the plants and add that ‘fresh’ look.

Next the plants-for-sale table is set up and great debates are held as to the pricing of the five tomato plants you had no room for in the greenhouse; the value of a species geranium in bud versus one already in flower; and how do people sell alchemilla mollis at any price when it grows like a weed? (Answer: easily, it seems; and add a few drops of water to the leaves and you can double the price.)

Then its time for the balloons (were they always this hard to inflate?), the ‘WARNING STEEP STEPS’ sign (an example of stating the bleeding obvious that we have come to expect) and the dog to be rounded up and shut in.

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And now, at ten minutes to opening the crowds are clamouring. Well, possibly not crowds but more than enough to fill your small plot of privacy. People you possibly would never ever come across let alone talk to are suddenly coming in through your back gate. They are walking on your pristine patio, knowingly looking at the signature entrance plant, before wandering off, looking intensely at the bulging borders whilst all the time desperate to stand up straight and look round, to take in the whole view and look at your house and gauge what sort of a person you are.

Would you have put that there? Would you have planted that rose next to that window? The comments, initially inaudible, quickly become loud enough for all to hear. The confidence of a few positive ones – “Very nice”, “how lovely” – can soon turn into “that’s interesting”, “oh look, we used to have one of those” and “thats very unusual”, phrases that might seem innocuous or even complimentary, but we know that really they are wondering why on earth we put that there, or why you still have something so common, so yesterday.

Actually I have to admit that I do prefer the more honest garden critic than the everything- in-the-garden-is rosy version. It has to be said that the fault of this ambivalence of opinion can be laid firmly at the door of the television gardening programmes for providing what, in popular parlance, is known as a double whammy (and I do apologise for using that term, but having written it, it would be hard to take it back). Gardening programmes are extremely positive things. They show us how nice we could make our plot – and then next year how nice we could make it again with different things. But you never hear anyone saying how awful things are, how terrible some plants are. Take astilbe. In fact take them right away. Why do you not hear Monty Don, when passing some garden and looking over the wall spotting one of those pink bottle brushes, saying to Carol Klein, “See that – I fucking hate that”?

No, garden voyeurs have evolved to be much more subtle. They know the nuances of gardening language, and that’s because they have experienced the same thing. They may not have had over 300 members of the general public through their garden, but they did have a friend who came over, once, for a coffee and, looking across the lawn towards the hostas, said “that’s an unusual way of displaying them”.

And so, you will understand that whilst it is enjoyable, in a masochistic manner, to open your garden for one afternoon a year, it is much more fun going to look round other gardens, pointing to a begonia and saying “See that….”

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